In The Gunman, Sean Penn Atones for Liam Neeson’s Sins

The Gunman Photo: Keith Bernstein/Open Road Films

If the subtle joke behind the Taken movies was that they revealed gentle, soft-spoken Liam Neeson to be a ruthlessly efficient killer, the joke behind The Gunman is a bit simpler: Over the years, nobody has seemed more pissed off at the world than Sean Penn, so now here’s his chance to kill everybody. But the film does bring an added nuance to this most recent iteration of the middle-aged-male-star-goes-on-a-bloody-rampage genre. It returns to the forefront the moral question the Taken movies so easily brushed aside: What, exactly, does a “man with a particular set of skills” do, and whom does he do it for? Neeson’s character in those earlier films was the perfect Killer Dad for a post-9/11 world, an American badass who went ballistic when his family was threatened, and who, we assumed, had killed with similar righteousness in his earlier, professional life. Hearkening back to an earlier, more conspiracy-minded time, this new film suggests that a life of killing for Western governments wasn’t always a guilt-free thrill ride. Watching The Gunman, you can’t help but feel sometimes that Sean Penn is atoning for Liam Neeson’s sins. 

The Gunman was directed by Pierre Morel, who actually directed the first Taken, but it was produced and co-written by the more socially conscious, serious-minded Penn. The finished film, though adapted from Jean-Patrick Manchette’s novel, feels like a hybrid: a throwaway genre piece crossed with a paranoid thriller, Three Days of the Condor with exploding heads. Penn, sporting an impeccable set of veins grooving along his newly gym-minted biceps, plays Jim Terrier, a contractor doing the bidding of Western mining interests in the Congo. The year is 2006, and he fronts as a field worker for an NGO alongside his pals Felix (Javier Bardem) and Terry (Mark Rylance). When the country’s new Minister of Mining decides to renegotiate all contracts with Western companies, the team springs into action and assassinates the maverick politician; as the triggerman, Jim agrees to flee the continent, which means leaving his beautiful volunteer doctor girlfriend Anna (the Italian actress Jasmine Trinca, who has the most expressive nostrils I’ve ever seen) behind without saying good-bye.

Eight years later, Jim is back in Africa, trying to make amends by working to bring fresh water to impoverished villages, when a group of machete-wielding assassins come looking for him. Realizing that the sins of the past have caught up with him, he heads back to Europe to track down his comrades. Terry now runs a contracting firm, while Felix has married Anna (whom he always secretly coveted) and retired to Spain, drowning his guilt in liquor and mopey self-loathing. As the bodies and double-crosses pile up, Jim and Anna find themselves running from a variety of baddies, with our hero steadily dispatching the thugs through a variety of impressive methods.

Impressive, but not particularly inventive. The Gunman never quite goes Full Neeson. Its soul is too conflicted for that, and it’s not the kind of movie to revel in its kills. If those earlier films justified their outre body counts by invoking an elemental protective impulse, The Gunman’s emotional reasoning is on the side of social justice. But while its heart might be in the right place, the script is — how to put it — awful, repeatedly conveying its points with thunderous obviousness. (“What does humanity pay a well-intentioned well-digger nowadays? Or is that a penance, St. Jim?” is an actual line of dialogue.) That the dire writing doesn’t completely ruin the whole enterprise is a testament to Morel’s deft hand with an action scene, but also to that overqualified cast: Penn is appropriately intense and glowery, and Bardem’s turn as a love-sick, soft Judas actually manages to be touching. The Gunman passes the time, but it never quite reconciles its conflicted nature. It’s not smart enough to be a paranoid thriller, nor fun enough to be a blood-soaked action flick.